In yoga, we try to find space, physically and spiritually.
Doing so allows us to release the tension, the fear and the negativity which is stored in our muscles, blood, bones, minds and spirit.
Over the years I’ve noticed some consistent and relatively easy ways to open up, even when you’re tied into a yogic knot.
Head up, shoulders down and back.
I used to remonstrate my students to “get their shoulders out of their ears”, but that’s only half of a total movement I should have been cuing.
When you drop the shoulders down and back—not just down—and extend through the crown of the head, you create real space. By doing both at the same time, you maximize the effect.
There is a simple way to understand this movement and also to get into the habit of doing it more frequently.
From tadasana or mountain pose, clasp your hands behind you and extend your arms down. This automatically sets your upper body in the right position. If your shoulders are too tight to manage this comfortably, grab a strap. Hold the strap at shoulder width behind you in both hands and reach down while keeping your torso as long as possible. Then imagine a string attached to the top of your head pulling you upright. Those two movements together open your chest and shoulders and lengthen your spine. Don’t forget to try to keep your pelvis tilted slightly forward and your core engaged.
After you have felt that sensation of a long neck and an open heart in tadasana, try applying it to more challenging poses. Though the poses may require your body to move in any number of ways, head up, and shoulders back and down always makes space.
Expand on your inhales, contract on your exhales.
This is a traditional rule of thumb which was never mentioned to me in 10 years of yoga classes. I only learned it in yoga teacher training. It is critical in finding space.
Seemingly self explanatory and overtly logical: when we stretch and reach, we inhale, filling our bodies with breath and therefore space. This is an instinctive motion, the same way we wake ourselves up in the morning; with big stretches and big expansive breaths.
Equally important is the idea of exhaling when you contract, fold or twist in any way. We can get deeper into a contraction or an exhalation because we get rid of the air which creates an obstacle to it, conversely making space in the extended part of the body.
For example, in paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), a big inhale stretches your arms and head up to the sky (while your shoulders move back and down) and a big exhale folds you forward, compressing your front body but opening up your back body.
When you pause within a pose for your five breaths (or however long your teacher leaves you there as she adjusts your classmates), continue to encourage expansion by reaching through the fingertips, grounding the feet or lifting and/or spreading your toes on your inhales, and contraction, by more strongly engaging the working muscles on your exhales.
You’ll be surprised by how much extra space those breaths will afford you.
Relax your face.
We all hold our poses in our faces at one time or another—or throughout an entire class, including savasana (resting pose) if you’re like me for the first three years of practice. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. And it makes sense. We are working hard trying to get into and maintain a difficult position.
As a teacher, I get to look around the room and see the facial expressions we get caught up in. Our bodies may be in an asana (pose) beautifully, but our faces show our tension, our turmoil, and our closed-ness.
Find space in your pose by relaxing the muscles of the face. Check in with your facial expression frequently throughout class, and if you find your jaw clenched or your brow furrowed, try moving your mouth and your eyes into a tiny smile instead. Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Wiggle your ears.
You will feel instantly lighter, the rest of your body will relax, and voila! Space!
There is nothing quite like getting up in your first sirsasana (headstand) and then having a spectacular wipe out all over your neighbor’s mat. What else can you do but laugh?
But we should be laughing more than that in yoga. Taking things too seriously is the number one way to lose space inside your body, heart and mind.
Laughter opens up more than just your internal space, but the space between you and your fellow practitioners as well. It allows us to see each other as vulnerable, encourages us to offer compassion, and also to take risks—knowing that even this sacred practice is just that, practice—never perfect.
Sometimes laughter is inappropriate, yes, but a smile and a sense of good humor never are.
Approach your practice lightly but faithfully and handle it with a mix of care and free spiritedness, and you will find yourself shedding the heavy layers of tension and fear which can keep us so trapped.
The more space you find, the more freedom you will feel, in your practice and in your daily life.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman